October 15, 2020
Which microphone you use can have a significant impact on the sound of your music, whether live or in the studio. Choosing the right one, therefore, is incredibly important. In this post, we run through the four main types of microphone, explaining how they work and which setups and instruments they’re most suited for.
Used in broadcasts, recording studios, and live performances, dynamic microphones are reliable and versatile. They work by transforming sounds waves into mic signals via a moving-coil magnetic diaphragm (a thin material that vibrates on contact with sound) within the microphone. The diaphragm’s ability to move is what gives the dynamic microphone its versatility, and means that it can capture sound at widely varying sound pressure levels; it deals with booming bass and guitar amplifiers just as well as it does with quieter sounds.
Large Diaphragm Condenser Microphones
Large diaphragm condenser microphones are generally found in professional recording studios. This is because they’re able to pick up more vibrations from sound waves due to a larger diaphragm within the microphone. This allows them to detect faint differences in sound, and reproduce it with greater fidelity. Their sensitivity, however, means that they are liable to distortion at high pressures – keep the volume in check to prevent this from happening.
Small Diaphragm microphones
Small diaphragm condenser microphones are much more common for home recording or live performances. Distinguished by their pencil-like appearance, small diaphragm mics are less sensitive than large diaphragm mics, and generally better at handling high pressure levels and wider dynamic ranges. Whilst large diaphragm mics can be considered almost as instruments by themselves, adding depth to sound, small diaphragm mics are more akin to tools that accurately record sounds as they are in real life.
Invented in the 1920s, ribbon microphones were once synonymous with broadcast radio, and are used today to produce a retro sound. Unlike diaphragm microphones, ribbon microphones pick up sound waves through a thin, corrugated strip of metal suspended between two magnetic poles. This means that they respond directly to the velocity of air particles, rather than changes in pressure, which makes it a good choice for recording fast transients and high frequencies. The use of a metal strip as a receptor for sound waves also means that the ribbon microphones are naturally bi-directional, and therefore block out sound waves arriving at the sides of the microphone.
Microphone type according to use
Dynamic mics are the best for capturing the different sounds produced by a full drum set, from the bass to the snare and toms. To get the nuances of more high pressure sounds, for example from the high-hat and ride cymbals, a series of small diaphragm mics can be used.
The most reliable option for recording vocals is a large diaphragm microphone. Its sensitivity and range means that it can deal with all types of singing voice and style. It’s worth nothing, though, that other mics can also be used to create a certain effect, or fit an environment with particular acoustics. As already mentioned, a ribbon microphone can be employed to create a more vintage sound, whilst a small diaphragm or ‘shotgun’ mic can be used for capturing groups of singers in large, open venues.
The type of microphone you use to record guitars depends on whether they’re electric or acoustic. For electric, a dynamic mic placed in front of the amp is the best – as long as it’s cardioid or hyper-cardioid (which refers to a microphone’s polar patterns), it’ll be able to deal with the high pressure frequencies. For acoustic, on the other hand, a large diaphragm mic will capture softer, more intimate sounds with greater fidelity.
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